Vols have no playmakers

The 1998 Tennessee Vols won a national title with Peerless Price providing big plays in the passing game and Travis Henry providing big plays in the running game.

The 2002 Vols have NO ONE making big plays in either area, which is a major reason the Big Orange record is a disappointing 4-3 overall and 1-3 in SEC play. Few teams can sustain an 80-yard touchdown drive without a 40-yard run or pass along the way, and Tennessee isn't getting those big plays. The one time it did last weekend vs. Alabama -- a 32-yard completion to Jonathan Wade -- the Vols scored their only offensive TD of the game.

This lack of big-play potential is why the Vols will have trouble scoring against South Carolina this Saturday. The Gamecocks are as unlikely to surrender big plays as Tennessee is to make them. That's how Carolina limited an explosive team like Georgia to 13 points earlier this fall.

''Their defense tries to contain you, keep everything in front,'' UT offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. ''It tries to make you execute all the way down the field with three-, four-, five-, six-yard gains. It tries to keep the double-digit gains to a minimum. They're doing a tremendous job of that.

''For any team, it's hard to execute 12 plays in a row -- and especially the way we're playing right now. We have a real challenge to execute and take a drive 10 or 12 plays and get it in the end zone.''

Lately, it's been a real challenge for any Tennessee team to get in the end zone against South Carolina's defense. The Vols managed just 17 points in 2000, although they had Travis Henry at tailback, Cedrick Wilson and Donte' Stallworth at receiver. Tennessee managed just 17 more points last fall, despite having Travis Stephens at tailback, Stallworth and Kelley Washington at receiver.

Washington was supposed to be a big-time playmaker at receiver this fall but he has missed almost as many games (three) as he has played (four). Cedric Houston was supposed to be a playmaker at tailback but he, too, has been slowed by injuries most of the season.

Asked which he needs most -- a playmaker in the passing game or in the running game -- Sanders deadpanned: ''I'd take EITHER right now.''

Even without a consistent playmaker, Tennessee's passing game has been reasonably productive this season. The Vols rank fourth among SEC schools in passing offense, averaging 249.6 yards per game. UT quarterbacks have the best completion percentage in the conference (65.0) and have thrown just six interceptions, the league's second-lowest total.

And remember: Tennessee's passing game has accomplished all of this with limited help from Kelley Washington.

''Our quarterback is able to make some things happen,'' Sanders noted, ''but he's able to make a lot more things happen when he has ALL of his weapons outside.''

While the passing attack has generally produced, Tennessee's ground game has done next-to-nothing all season. Against Bama, Vol backs carried 24 times for 25 yards. If the Big Orange could fix that problem, everything else might fall into place.

''The run game is always nice,'' Sanders said. ''I love having a run game where you can call something and always count on getting four yards. That's where we've struggled a little bit.''

Actually, that's where the Vols have struggled A LOT. Still, Sanders sees signs of progress.

''I think our run game has been close,'' he said. ''We've struggled in it some but we're definitely getting better. We need for the run game to make a big step for us. We need the run game to continue coming on, so we can get safeties involved (in run support) and create some one-on-one situations (for the receivers).''

Although Tennessee's run blocking has been mediocre, Vol tailbacks have done a poor job exploiting the few holes they've gotten.

''I think those guys (backs) are playing pretty well,'' Sanders said, ''but they haven't really separated themselves and been special, like I thought they could be.''

Part of the problem is that two of Tennessee's top five backs, Troy Fleming and Jabari Davis, are bruisers who lack breakaway speed. Another part of the problem is that two of the quicker backs, Houston and Derrick Tinsley, are injury-prone. Part 3 of the problem is that heralded freshman Gerald Riggs, Jr., rarely gets on the field.

If just one of Tennessee's tailbacks could emerge as an SEC-quality rusher, the offense might snap out of its season-long doldrums.

I don't see it happening this week, though. My pick: South Carolina 17, Tennessee 10.

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